Exploring the Natural World

Where to Hike

The wonderful thing about hiking is you can do it just about anywhere you live. Even in the largest cities, hiking places abound. You may have to be creative, but usually the question of where to hike can easily be solved. Take, for example, a heavily populated urban area. While you may have self-imposed restrictions due to a legitimate concern (or outright fear) for your personal safety, there are still many places within the community to hike. I’d never suggest that hiking alone through the wild jungles of Chicago is wise, as many rabid predators will be tempted to pounce. But any expert city dweller knows (or quickly learns) which areas to avoid, and which can be ventured safely. In only moderately wild jungles, a sensible first step is to secure a confidence-boosting hiking buddy (or two) and always practice “the buddy system.” A medium-sized dog or larger, if capable of vicious snarls and painful bites, would be my personal preference, only because they prefer regular action over regular talk.

Assuming you’re safe, exit your dwelling on foot and begin stepping lively in the direction you find most promising. Head for areas with trees, shrubbery, and flowers, and plan a route that loops its way back home within your allotted time frame. Where there are trees and plants, you’ll find birds, squirrels, bees, and more. These are the treasures, in my view. But you may find other things that provide great inspiration—perhaps well-dressed, dazzling storefronts with luxury handbags or fabulous jewelry—and those are the treasures you’ll want to seek. If you enjoy powering through a gauntlet of hustling people, don your hiking footwear and journey up the main pedestrian thoroughfare during the lunch-hour rush. Return like a pinball and avoid getting bumped and jostled and knocked around senseless. Most cities plan and build “green spaces” to improve the quality of life for residents. These take the form of gardens, parks, and trails. You’ll share these amenities with your neighbors, most of whom are likewise peace-loving individuals. Find a city map that shows the green zones, mark your favorites, and highlight your routes. I would personally tape such a map to the wall near my hiking gear.

I have come to prefer living in small towns, away from the hustle and bustle of cities and suburbs. For years, I’ve done my daily hiking along back roads and farm fields and timbered country trails. I find these offer endless possibilities for on-foot exploration. Often times, I can leave my doorstep, hike a sidewalk briefly until it ends, then venture further on a seldom-used two-track or other trail into the woods. Sometimes I find train tracks to hike along, marching rhythmically from tie to tie for untold miles, or to another connecting trail that may lead to a pond or flowing creek or similar other natural feature of complete serenity and calm. Here, the birdsong inspires the fish to jump and the deer to emerge for drink—and me to sit and rest. In other places I’ve lived, the best hiking sliced through a canopied forest of tall white pines, soft of needle and fragrantly green, and at the end of the lane, a manicured cemetery whispered old secrets to me that I mulled on for the lingering time of my visit. The insights gleaned from such discovered places makes me long to return there again. And so I do. Often I find grassy ridges to hike along, and the distant views provide more insights yet.

Nature trails can be found within striking distance of a car. Perhaps you’ve exhausted the local options, or just seek trails you haven’t marched a thousand times. If you search online for nature centers and trails, you’ll inevitably find a variety of places to explore. Around my own stomping grounds, within a 30 mile radius, I have access to several nature centers, public hiking areas, bird and wildlife “rehab zoos,” and countless other outdoor attractions where people are encouraged to come and learn about the natural world. Most of these are nonprofit foundations or charities, and many include well-groomed hiking trails, boardwalks, and scenic or educational points of interest. I visit these areas often. I also support them financially when possible.

Like nature centers, state parks contribute to much of my personal hiking joy. I usually venture to state parks with family and friends, making a day of it. We load the car with picnic food, drive for an hour or so, then land at the state park of our day’s choice around 10 a.m. We park the car, hike and snoop around the trails for a couple hours, seeing the main sights, pumping up our blood, then migrate back to the vehicle for lunch. Few other outings satisfy my family like state park adventuring. Aside from gas expense, there is no serious hit to our finances, as state parks provide acres and miles of public use lands at no cost to the individual. (Yes, we pay taxes, but even if we didn’t, we could hike the parks for free.)

No matter where you live, you’ll be hard-pressed to enjoy all variety of natural land features available unless you visit state parks. When my family wants to experience higher bluffs, we must venture toward the Mississippi. When we wish to explore amazing underground caves, we must travel perhaps an hour or so. If we travel for 30 minutes, we can hike a fossil gorge. Driving north for two and a half hours, we can hike among preserved Indian burial mounds. We can hike to magnificent waterfalls by driving six hours. Without hardly trying, my family and I experience many (nowhere near all) beautiful hiking destinations that bring us together and infuse our spirits with vitality and zest. By far, the simple hiking voyages have been the most satisfying to me personally. Our family photo gallery (and my personal memory bank) is filled with scenes of joy.

If you are fortunate enough to live near a national park, you’ll undoubtedly know the value of hiking within. Many of the best national parks in the United States are in the West. Such is the nature of our topography. For me, these parks offer occasional hiking, as opposed to regular. I think most avid hikers who live near a national park (e.g. Rocky Mountain National Park) would agree they are fortunate for their proximity. However, I also believe that because national parks cater to many tourists throughout the year, their appeal to locals can become somewhat (if not entirely) worn. As often happens in tourist-heavy areas, the locals go venturing elsewhere. The national parks are well-worth experiencing, but do not despair if your life’s course has not landed you within a stone’s throw. One of my ambitions is to visit the major national parks at least once during my lifetime. Of course, the stars must align with other goals I have, too, and all things are unlikely to pan out perfectly, which I’ll lose no sleep over.

Far and away, my preferred hiking locations are state and national forests. These are often backpacking paradises. Being a primitive camping enthusiast, I enjoy extended hiking trips to remote areas, carrying all my gear and supplies in a 4,000 cubic inch, or larger, backpack. Such adventures begin with planning. Much and careful planning. Surrounding Rocky Mountain Nation Park, for example (because I mentioned it already), are miles upon miles of state and national forest. These are the areas most frequently visited by dyed-in-the-wool hikers and backpackers. For extended trips, the state and national forests offer spectacular campsites that can only be reached by foot (human or horse). You get both the pleasure and the pain of enjoying the backcountry more privately. Quite often, especially midweek, the primitive camping sites are devoid of any human life (until you arrive). When I backpack, I typically take one or two others, and we stay out hiking for several days. We drive to a trailhead, leave the vehicle, hike in, and survive out of our backpacks for as long as we can. I find it very satisfying.

Wherever you hike, embrace each step. You’re living the good life and breathing fresh air.

About Bob Ward

In addition to nonfiction, Bob writes a fiction series featuring outdoor travel hero Kip Stone of Epic Adventures, Inc. For details, visit BobWardBooks.com.

Leave a Comment